Interview with Notorious Lawyer Jacques Vergès: 'There Is No Such Thing as Absolute Evil'

Part 2: 'I Shift Events to Outside the Courtroom'

SPIEGEL: In your first big trial as a young lawyer, you took on a hopeless case in 1957: the defense of the Algerian resistance fighter Djamila Bouhired, who had been charged with committing bombings that also killed civilians.

Vergès: I was completely on her side. She was a patriot. She was brutally tortured in prison.

SPIEGEL: In the trial, you introduced, for the first time, your now-famous rupture strategy, or "defense de rupture," the principle of launching a defense with a political counter-attack. Why?

Vergès: The other French attorneys who had taken over the defense in Algiers tried to begin a dialogue with the military judges there. The judges saw the FLN as a criminal group. But the Algerian defendants saw their attacks as a necessary act of resistance. In other words, there was no consensus over the principles that were to be applied in reaching a verdict. For me, it meant that I had to shift the events to outside the courtroom and win over public opinion for the defendants.

SPIEGEL: It worked. After an international campaign that you helped organize, Bouhired, who had been sentenced to death, was released, and she eventually became your wife. In March 1963, you went to China with her to drink tea with Mao Zedong. How did you manage to get an audience with the Great Chairman?

Vergès: I managed a newspaper in Algeria at the time, Révolution Africaine, which was supported by the FLN. The Chinese had invited members of the editorial staff to Beijing. We had many very serious political discussions. But Mao's human side surprised me. There was something touching about him. He asked me, in all seriousness, whether I intended to marry Djamila. I said that I did, and he replied: "Do it. It will certainly be a difficult relationship, but love is a subversive force."

SPIEGEL: Would you still feel so positively about Mao, given the knowledge we have today, the knowledge of the 30 million starvation deaths for which he was already responsible then, as a result of his "Great Leap Forward?"

Vergès: I believe that everyone has good qualities and weaknesses. I had the great fortune of only getting to know Mao's positive side.

SPIEGEL: You also met Che Guevara.

Vergès: Yes, in Paris. He was just returning from a trip to Switzerland. He first wife was working in our editorial offices. He was impressive, a man with incredible charisma.

SPIEGEL: You were later suspected of having helped terrorists yourself. Was that true? Did you ever think of joining your clients' struggles?

Vergès: I have respect for what many of them did, but I would not do it myself.

SPIEGEL: Respect for terrorists? How can you reconcile that with your conscience, your perception of the law?

Vergès: Magdalena Kopp, for example, Carlos's life partner for many years, was a young German who had studied photography and wanted to become a reporter. Then she left it all behind and went to the Middle East to fight on the side of the oppressed Palestinians. That was an extremely selfless act, for which I can feel nothing by sympathy.

SPIEGEL: But, as a lawyer, aren't you crossing a red line with such sentiments?

Vergès: What exactly does this red line mean? It is my damned obligation, as an attorney, to defend anyone, especially those with the most serious charges against them. Second, I cannot identify with these acts. If my client Klaus Barbie had asked me to argue the superiority of the Aryan race in my summation, I would have said to him: I'm sorry, I can't do that. I am Maître Vergès, an attorney licensed to practice in Paris, not an Obersturmführer.

SPIEGEL: Did you hesitate for long before accepting the defense of Klaus Barbie, the former head of the Gestapo, the "Butcher of Lyon?"

Vergès: Not a second. At Barbie's 1987 trial in Lyon, I faced the 39 lawyers on the opposing side and the judge. That alone was reason enough to assume Barbie's defense.

SPIEGEL: You needed police protection after you held up a mirror to France in the courtroom and accused many Frenchmen of collaborating with the Nazis.

Vergès: The beauty of a trial can be measured by the trail it leaves behind, long after the sentence has been pronounced.

SPIEGEL: What was your impression of Barbie?

Vergès: He was a surprisingly ordinary man, no outstanding personality. But, of course, one should not forget that more than 40 years had passed between the crimes he committed and the trial. He was no longer the same man.

SPIEGEL: You should know. You too disappeared without a trace in the 1970s. Without even notifying your family, you were gone for eight years. To this day, no one knows where you were at that time.

Vergès: André Malraux once said that the truth about a man lies mainly in what he does not say…

SPIEGEL: …in other words, you have no intention of ever clearing up this mystery?

Vergès: Why should I? It's highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost 10 years. It has been conjectured that I spent the time with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in Palestine, in China and in France. I enjoyed reading my obituaries. They were about a highly gifted young man who had left this world.

SPIEGEL: You take on many of your cases without payment. You have defended prostitutes and poor children. How do you fund your law firm?

Vergès: Don't worry. There are also industrial companies that I represent, and they pay me very well, so there is certainly some money left over.

SPIEGEL: There have also been rumors of your being on the payroll of and an advisor to African potentates. The Congolese politician Moise Tshombé, who was involved in the murder of (former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice) Lumumba, was one of them, and you even sued Amnesty International on behalf of the violent former president of Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma…

Vergès: …because it had claimed things that were untrue. Even good organizations must respect certain limits.

SPIEGEL: Eyadéma, Tschombé and their ilk -- aren't these people of whom you could say: I don't want to have anything to do with them?

Vergès: Yes, I could do that, but it would be about the same thing as a doctor saying to his patient: "You know, you have AIDS, but I don't like black people. I think they are criminal and it disgusts me, so I will not treat you."

SPIEGEL: A doctor must provide help, but as an attorney, you are not obligated to accept every client.

Vergès: If you meet a doctor who cannot look at blood, pus or open wounds, he is in the wrong profession. If you meet a lawyer who doesn't like criminals or dictators, it's the same thing.

SPIEGEL: "My moral is to be against every moral, because it seeks to lash down life," you once wrote.

Vergès: Yes, in an autobiographical book that I named after something a journalist had once called me: "Le Salaud lumineux," or "The Brilliant Bastard."

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you use your profession mainly for permanent intellectual provocation?

Vergès: I use it mainly for permanent intellectual enrichment. Our view of the world changes with time, because we see it from different perspectives. Thanks to my profession, I am now familiar with the view of the world from the perspective of the terrorist and the policeman, the criminal and the idiot, the virgin and the nymphomaniac. And I can tell you that this improves one's own vision.

SPIEGEL: Maître Vergès, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Brita Sandberg and Eric Follath

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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Jacques Vergès and his Infamous Clients
Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Jacques Vergès and his Infamous Clients


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